Modifying Pennsylvania Child Support During COVID-19 Quarantine Without Delay
Parents wishing to modify child support orders may be stymied while the courts of western Pennsylvania are temporarily closed by the shelter-in-place orders issued by Gov. Tom Wolf and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Yet, many parents need immediate relief as their incomes have been reduced by COVID-19-related business closures, layoffs, furloughs and the national economic downturn. They might not want to wait a month or more for the courts to reopen.
Options still exist even during this unprecedented time and as a Pittsburgh family law attorney at Pollock Begg, I am still able to assist and discuss options available as our team is working remotely. Feel free to reach out by calling our office at (412) 471-9000.
In the meantime, when considering whether to pursue a request for support modification in Pennsylvania, parents may consider these tips:
1. The courts are closed, but retroactivity can be preserved. As of this writing, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has closed the statewide court system through mid-April, and Allegheny County issued an order postponing all hearings until May 31, 2020. Still, the Domestic Relations Section, where child and spousal support cases are filed, is accepting petitions to establish or modify child support and spousal support and parents and spouses can file for Pennsylvania support modification electronically. Those cases may not be heard until midsummer, unless the court adopts a procedure for telephone or videoconference hearings. It seems likely when the court reopens, there might be a backlog.
Why file a support modification now if the court won’t hear it? By filing now, a parent or spouse can preserve retroactivity, the date when the modification will be effective. Typically, under Pennsylvania law, the courts cannot modify support for a time period before the petition has been filed (unless good cause is shown). When a support modification is requested, there is a wait for the hearing, which may be longer than usual due to the temporary court closures. When the hearing takes place, the support modification may be backdated when the hearing was requested, which is called retroactivity.
In Allegheny County, the Family Division Administrative Judge has declared retroactivity will be preserved as long as a parent or spouse files a support modification request within 30 days after the courts reopen. There will be a flood of cases filed in that first 30 days, so there may be an incentive to file now and preserve retroactivity—and possibly get priority when hearings are scheduled.
2. Calculating net income correctly is the key to success. The official Pennsylvania Child Support Estimator makes it easy to determine how much child support is owed, if the right income data is entered. Yet, the estimator does not provide much guidance on how to calculate net income for child support under Pennsylvania law, which is slightly different from taxable income or take-home pay or additional assistance in this COVID-19-specific situation.
If both parents are W-2 wage-earners, without bonuses or overtime, commissions, or income from business or investments, then it may be relatively simple. Net income is equal to gross income minus federal, state and local income taxes; FICA payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare); union dues if any; and mandatory retirement contributions.
Yet, many parents have other forms of income. Bonuses, overtime, commissions, profits, interest and dividends, restricted stock/options, employer retirement contributions—these are just some of the forms of income family lawyers and courts must consider when calculating net income for a support modification.
Of course, the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 is making it more complicated to calculate net income now. If a parent is furloughed or laid off, he or she might be entitled to severance or unemployment benefits, which may be enhanced by an additional $600 per week under the Federal CARES Act passed in March 2020 (up to four months). And, parents and spouses may be receiving stimulus checks of $1,200 per adult, plus $500 for each under age 17. These forms of income must be considered, whether they affect one or both sides of the equation.
Calculating net income is a special challenge in support modification cases involving commissioned salespeople, business owners, licensed professionals and executives whose income may be tied to their company’s performance, particularly at this time. Business owners and self-employed parents and spouses, including licensed professionals, may be experiencing dramatic fluctuations in their income. Many nonessential businesses are closed temporarily (or indefinitely), or they are muddling through an economic downturn rivaling the Great Depression. Meanwhile, they might be receiving forgivable CARES Act Payroll Protection Program loans or Disaster Relief loans from the Small Business Administration to weather the storm. All of these factors must be considered.
3. A well-connected family lawyer can resolve support modification out of court. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 epidemic and economic crisis, Pittsburgh family lawyers like me and my firm Pollock Begg are still operating remotely to serve clients from our home offices. A respected firm known as proactive problem solvers in initiating settlement, we have built a broad network in Allegheny County and surrounding areas of western Pennsylvania.
In normal times, nine out of 10 family law cases are settled out of court, in our experience. Especially now, we may consider alternative dispute resolution techniques, such as arbitration and mediation, if we cannot achieve a settlement through traditional negotiations. The key to getting a case settled is having the right information. If we are provided with the information we need to perform net income calculations, we can settle a child support modification case efficiently and promptly.
The current economic downturn might be temporary; business and employment might soon resume their previous historical levels after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. So, when thinking about a support modification in Pennsylvania, we must weigh the potential benefit against the cost. At the least, it may be worthwhile to negotiate a temporary support modification until normality returns. An out-of-court settlement can be crafted to provide temporary relief while saving parents and spouses from having to go back to court later.
For more information or to discuss your case specifically, please contact our Pittsburgh family law firm at (412) 471-9000. While we are working remotely, we are operationally fully functional and committed to continuing to respond to all inquiries in a timely matter giving our clients’ cases the utmost attention. Our paralegals will schedule prompt return calls and we are still accessible for face-to-face meetings virtually. Feel free to reach out to anyone on our team of family law attorneys at Pollock Begg, to get help with modification of child support (or spousal support) in Allegheny County and throughout western Pennsylvania. Until then, stay home and stay safe!
Brian C. Vertz is a partner in Pollock Begg with decades of experience in routine and complex child support, divorce and tax-related family law cases. Author of the legal reference book “Frumkes & Vertz on Divorce Taxation,” Brian is a sought-after speaker, course planner and the author of the 2017 Family Law Update for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute. Brian is a fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers as well as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.